by Ellen Sims
text: Mark 1:29-39
The Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel is a healer. But the concepts of sickness and health in the Ancient Near East differed greatly from our own. Jesus knew nothing of germs and genes. Many in Jesus’s day believed infirmity could be a result of God’s punishment for evil done by the person who was sick or even their parents, though Jesus rejected that idea. He did embrace the Jewish notion of what we might call today the mind-body connection, viewing the body and soul as indivisible. No wonder the Greek verb sozo in Jesus’ day meant both to save and to heal, and so-ter meant both savior and physician. Also bear in mind that scholars now believe the Roman military occupation was so brutal in Jesus’s day that it created mass psychoses–mental disorders with physical symptoms like hysterical blindness and lameness, so Jesus was perhaps healing wounded minds and spirits. That appreciation for the body-mind-spirit connection is at last becoming more important to modern Western medical practice.
One scholar makes this contrast: In Jesus’s culture, people were not healed by a “what” (a pill or surgery, for instance), but by a “who” (a miracle worker or hearler) And there were, at that time, other Jewish healers like Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa. (Pilch 72).
Even the concept of health itself meant something different to Jesus’s contemporaries. Health was “a state of complete well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Pilch 72). People were “healed” when they returned to a state of well-being. That’s because the ancient Mediterranean culture emphasized “the value of simply living or being rather than of achieving or doing.” You had health if you could live with a sense wholeness and connection and meaning in your life. We in our capitalistic culture do not claim to be “healed” as long as some injury or disease prevents us from going back to work and being a productive member of society. But “Jesus heal[ed] people by restoring their relationships, not their level of productivity.” Being healed is different from being cured. People whom Jesus healed, like lepers or the demon-possessed who were relegated to the outskirts of a town were “healed” when they could leave the graveyards and caves on the outskirts of town they’d been exiled to and return to their place in their community and their relatedness in their families. You and I tend to think the problems Jesus the healer addressed were medical; but his peers saw these problems as communal. Being healed is when people are restored to the community and ultimately find meaning in life, whether they are “cured” of a disease or not. Jesus “restored meaning and joy to the lives of individuals” (Pilch 78).
You may think I’m trying to downgrade Jesus’s healing powers, but I am not. Healing was central to his ministry. Even today the healing done in the name of Jesus is life-changing. But let us not impose our cultural understandings of healing onto another culture. So with an awareness of those cultural differences, we’re ready to look at Mark’s scant 3-verse story of Jesus’s first healing (verses 29-31). Note the circumstances in which healing takes place and the purposes and effects of healing in the Jesus community.
We begin noting that Jesus and his disciples have just left a Sabbath service in the local synagogue and are walking to Simon’s house. It is significant that the writer sets this first healing story on the Sabbath, and it will not be the last time Jesus violates Jewish law that forbids healing on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus will next heal on the Sabbath in the synagogue itself (Mark 3: 1-6), an infraction so flagrant that some start plotting against him. Jesus’s propensity for Sabbath healings, attested to in the other synoptic gospels, is not aimed at disrespecting religious law but in exposing religion’s ills. Yes, religion itself can be sick. Maybe the most miraculous act Jesus performed that day was to reconnect the work of the Sabbath with its healing aims.
If our worship anesthetizes us to the pain of others, if our prayers drown out the cries of those who are hurting, if our theology paralyzes people with guilt for being who God created them to be or prevents them from using the minds God gave them, then our religion itself is sick. If our worship does not bring us rest and restoration, then we are not genuinely engaged in the aims of Sabbath. Sabbath, Jesus says through his enacted sermons, is for healing. Friends, if you don’t leave here having experienced at least some small measure of healing in your life and some renewed commitment to join in God’s healing of the world, then you need to ask me for a refund.
And whom does Jesus heal at the start of his healing ministry? Significantly, it’s someone of little significance: the unnamed mother-in-law of Simon, who is in an especially vulnerable state. We can assume the sick woman is widowed since she’s not living with her husband. Widows and orphans were, in that culture, the most vulnerable of all in that patriarchal society since women, like children, depended upon a male member of their family. This sick woman is also apparently without sons, or she’d have been living with a son in her widowhood. And because Simon’s wife is never mentioned, some speculate that she, too, has died. So this widow, connected to society only by the thin thread of her dead daughter’s husband, faces another indignity and diminishment: her illness prevents her from performing the household duties that would give her an acceptable role in society. Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, singles out someone on the farthest margins of society. And he heals her.
How? He took her by the hand (v. 31). As Frederick Buechner said, “Sometimes just the touch of another human being is enough to save the day.” We heal one another by touch: the ordinary magic of human kindness we all carry within us and transmit with a hand extended in friendship, with an arm around a shoulder bowed in grief, with a connecting gaze that says “we’re in this together.”
Jesus demonstrated by his touch that this sick woman was worthy of being connected again to others. She deserved to be reintegrated into community–not by dint of her efforts nor by degree of blood relationship but simply by her humanness. He touched her. And he lifted her up. I wonder if those hands supporting her reminded her of the passage we read earlier from Isaiah, where those who are tired and weary feel the Spirit of God raising them up as if on eagle’s wings.
Mark tells the story as if the healing happened instantly. But Mark telescopes every event. Deep healing takes a long time. So I wonder if Jesus had been staying in Simon’s house for awhile. I wonder if he’d had many talks with her. I wonder if he’d learned she’d taken to her bed because she was grieving the death of her spouse or child. Grief or stress or hurt or exhaustion will do that, you know. I wonder if Jesus listened to her heartache she shared in feverish bursts. I wonder if one day, when Jesus held out his hand, she found the will to live again, and so she took his hand, and her spirit lifted.
Unfortunately, the final detail of an otherwise poignant story is ripe for spoofing. Verse 31 ends the story this way: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” No sooner is the fever gone than this poor woman leaves her sickbed to wait on the men her son-in-law brought home. It’s Sunday night, and she’s probably rustling up supper for her son-in-law and the guys he’s brought over to watch the Super Bowl. Simon calls into the kitchen, “Hey, can we get some more buffalo wings out here?” as Andrew spills his beer on her new sofa.
So I am initially bothered that this poor woman goes right from her sick bed to serving the others. But that would not be the point the writer in this Ancient Near East culture wants to make. This woman’s restoration was tied not to her productivity but to her relatedness within the household.
And for me the main point is this: we are healed in order to be in community with others. Once healed, we serve in order to continue the healing among others. I’ve recognized this process when I’ve watched people moving from alcoholism to sobriety. One way they continue in sobriety is by sharing their stories with others. If the hurts of your life are healing, if your spiritual journey is deepening, if places in your life are being transformed, you are able to lift up others.
Today’s story doesn’t reveal how Simon’s mother-in-law felt serving others immediately after she was healed. But I hope she did not drag herself from her sickbed to make nachos for the boys. I suspect Mark’s gospel instead emphasizes her immediate serving in order to signal that the proof of her healing is found in her reintegration into the home.
And now we turn our attention to the epilogue, which is far longer than the story itself. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Jesus soon is inundated with other sick people wanting to be healed. Jesus keeps at it until night advances, and in the wee hours of the morning, he slips away in the darkness to a deserted place for prayer. Soon the disciples hunt him down and draw him back into serving others. But a rhythm continues for Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: he serves-and then retreats in prayer-and serves–and then finds time to be alone and in prayer. The healer heals through connection. But the healer also needs quiet reflection.
I hope we at Open Table can find that healthy rhythm. I hope we can attend to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. I hope we as a community can together practice healthier ways of eating and exercising, of meditating and praying, of sharpening our minds, of reducing the stress in our lives, of restoring others to a supportive, grace-filled community. Because we are healed in community. And we are healed for community.
PRAYER: In gratitude, O God, we open ourselves to your healing touch. Amen
[i] Pilch, John J. The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999 (72). See also the Handbook of Biblical Social Values, John Pilch and Bruce Malina, editors, as well as The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina.
[ii] Buechner, Frederick. “Healing” in Wishful Thinking. Harper One, 1993.